Fate of GOP health care alternative unclear

WASHINGTON — Even though their party controls the U.S. House, hope may be fading for U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, of Jefferson, and other Republicans who want to see a GOP alternative to Obamacare debated in the House before the November elections.

Their intra-party disagreement with the House leadership over if and when to roll with an alternative plan reflects some of the Republican uncertainty about exactly how to play the Obamacare card in November.

The party hopes to capitalize on widespread voter discontent with the health-care law. But despite the pressure of “Oh yeah? You got a better idea?,” there’s reluctance to offer what would inevitably become a target of Democratic counter-attacks — especially when Republicans see the electoral tide running in their favor as things stand.

“My guess is that the battle on the Obamacare debate is that Democrats said it would work and Republicans said it wouldn’t work, and now Americans are experiencing it and they’re making a decision for themselves; and their experience is very bad,” said Republican U.S. Rep. John Fleming, of Minden. “It’s creating such a positive political landscape for Republicans.”

Fleming, who said he has not consulted with House leadership on the issue, said the thinking seems to be, “When the other side is hurting itself, why do we want to go out there and take any risk?”

Fleming, a physician, was on the task force that drafted House Bill 3121 — the American Health Care Reform Act — that was introduced by the Republican Study Committee as an alternative to Obamacare last September. Scalise is chairman of the RSC, a broad conservative coalition that includes more than half of the House Republican majority. He co-signed a “Dear Colleague” letter asking the 130 co-sponsors of the bill to show up at a House Republican meeting May 29 wearing campaign buttons declaring, “I support HB3121.”

Fleming wore a button, as did a dozen or more other members, he said.

And Fleming would like to see the bill brought forward: “I think that Americans do want to know what our alternative is.”

Scalise pressed the point in the meeting. But his argument did not prevail.

“We knew last year it would be an uphill climb,” Scalise said this week. “But we’ve made a lot of progress. We started off at the base of the mountain and we’re working our way up.”

Scalise said he is continuing to meet with House leadership and committee chairmen to make his case. But the calendar is not in his favor: Less than two months remain before the House breaks for its August recess, which leads into the campaign season for the elections — and Scalise acknowledged it’s unlikely the bill would come up during that September-November stretch.

The RSC bill would repeal Obamacare and replace it with a system designed to increase marketplace competition by allowing people to shop for health plans outside their home states, something they can’t do now. The measure would promote health-insurance purchasing pools for small businesses. Families and individuals could claim a tax deduction for coverage expenses, and they would gain increased access to pre-tax spending on care through expanded health savings accounts.

The bill also encourages states to provide coverage for pre-existing conditions through state-run, high-risk pools. It reforms medical malpractice law by capping non-economic damages and attorneys’ fees. And it bars spending federal money on abortions except in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the life of the mother.

Like Fleming, U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess is a physician; he’s also vice-chairman of the health subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Unlike Fleming, he is not a co-sponsor of HB3121.

Burgess is no fan of Obamacare, but he doesn’t expect it will change much so long as President Barack Obama occupies the White House. He’s looking forward to what he hopes will be the inauguration of his fellow Texas Republican, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, in January 2017, then Obamacare will be consigned to the dustbin of history.

“In the meantime, I’m probably less inclined to go with one of these broad repeal bills because the task of getting that passed and enacted into law is just so daunting at this point,” Burgess said. “I’m more focused on helping people with what’s happening right now.”

To that end, he supports smaller-gauge bills that would enact pieces of the RSC proposal, such as interstate insurance purchases, expanded health savings accounts and tax breaks for coverage expenses.

“It’s hard to come up with a plan that everyone is going to agree with that the president is going to sign into law that will be a replacement vehicle,” he said.

Loath to concede just yet, Scalise showed little interest in discussing a plan B. But, an RSC staffer has said the House Republican leadership has promised that an Obamacare alternative will get an airing “this legislative year” — meaning that the promise would be kept if the bill rolls out in November or December, after the Nov. 4 elections.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” Scalise did say. “This is an important set of battles to set the stage for 2016.”

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